Betsy Gidwitx Reports

The hesed has done research showing that its clients live about 15 years longer than non-Jews in Ukraine, stated Mr. Kesselman.[27]  He also noted that the availability of services to clients depends heavily on whether or not the person is a victim of the Holocaust; reparations provided by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany provide a significant subsidy to victims, so much so that surviving victims receive four times as much aid as those who were not victims.  Obviously, the contrast in available services generates tension among clients and places staff in awkward situations when decisions must be made regarding the provision of services to specific clients.


A large number of elderly Jews in Odesa live alone, stated Mr. Kesselman.  In many cases, their children have emigrated, but the elderly prefer to stay in a locale that is familiar to them and in which they do not have to learn a new language.  These older individuals, Mr. Kesselman continued, are very lonely.  Addressing this problem, the hesed sponsors about 20 different hobby groups for retired people and has reinstated its warm home program; nine warm homes now meet in different apartments throughout the city.  However, whereas a hot lunch used to be a central feature of each warm home gathering, budgetary constraints have led to the replacement of full meals with just tea and cookies or other snacks.


The hesed would like to expand opportunities for intellectual discussion available to senior adults, said Mr. Kesselman.  Many Jewish elderly are well-educated and need the stimulation and enjoyment provided by intellectual discourse.


The hesed also works with about 500 special-needs children and their families, Mr. Kesselman stated.  Programs available to this population include modest welfare services, socializing opportunities, and legal advice.


About 100 individuals do some volunteer work at or for the hesed, Mr. Kesselman responded to a question.  Among such people are hesed clients, who generally receive small stipends (regarded as pension supplements) for their labors.  Mr. Kesselman showed the writer a gift of fabrics that had just been received from a fabric merchant; skilled seamstresses and tailors among the hesed clients would transform these fabrics into costumes for Beit Grand drama productions, aprons for homecare workers, and bed linens for clients.[28]   Mr. Kesselman added that the hesed previously solicited funds from businessmen for medicines, but that such a fundraising campaign ceased under pressure during the 2008-2009 economic crisis and has not yet resumed.



Synagogue-Related Activity



13.  Odesa has achieved a certain notoriety in the post-Soviet states for having two feuding chief rabbis, each of whom ignores the other and both of whom cause embarrassment to local Jews for their creation of duplicate programs and exercise of mutual hostility.  The senior of the two rabbis is Shlomo Baksht, who first came to the city in 1993 under the auspices of the Ohr Somayach organization.  Rabbi Baksht has established an institutional infrastructure that includes a renovated choral synagogue, a Jewish day school and university studies program,[29] the largest Jewish children's residential facility in Ukraine, several welfare programs, and a kosher restaurant.  Although some of these programs now operate independently from Ohr Somayach, Rabbi Baksht remains responsible for all of them.


Rabbi Baksht has recruited a large number of Israelis to manage these undertakings onsite in Odesa.  He administers them from Israel, where he now spends most of his time.  Almost all of his fundraising is accomplished through support organizations abroad, rather than from local donors.  He was not in Odesa at the time of the writer's visit.



Chief Rabbi of Odesa, Rabbi Shlomo Baksht during a 2009 meeting with the writer.



Photo: the writer.








14.   Rabbi Avrum Wolf, a follower of Chabad, came to Odesa in 1998 after serving as Chief Rabbi of Kherson, another city in southern Ukraine.  Unlike Rabbi Baksht, Rabbi Wolf does a substantial amount of fundraising among local Jews.  His synagogue is substantially smaller in size than the choral synagogue of Rabbi Baksht, but Rabbi Wolf has acquired a number of additional structures that house his various programs.  Among these are a new community building with a large hall, two school buildings, two buildings accommodating the Chabad Southern Ukraine Jewish University,[30] and two dormitories for at-risk children.[31]  The boys' dormitory building also contains a heder, i.e., a school with an intensive religious curriculum for boys.


Rabbi Avrum Wolf, Chabad Chief Rabbi of Odesa.



Photo:!3081256.  Retrieved July 9, 2013..



In the absence of Rabbi Wolf, who was attending an out-of-town conference, his wife, Mrs. Chaya Wolf described a Jewish community in crisis.  "Everything" is worse this year, she said.  The general mood (настроение) in Odesa is terrible.  Although Chabad has lost donors because many Jewish-owned businesses are failing, she and Rabbi Wolf have tried to expand Chabad welfare services in order to address the needs of an increasingly troubled Jewish population.


A Chabad social welfare program provides assistance to needy Jews from birth to old age.  Because many young Jewish couples cannot afford to have children, Chabad is now subsidizing 44 young families with newborn children; they receive monthly subsidies of up to $100 for two years.  The main objective is to enable them to rent housing that is suitable for raising young children; in response to a question, Mrs. Wolf said that rent for a minimally acceptable for apartment in Odesa is at least $200 monthly.  At the other end of the age spectrum, about 50 elderly Jews are served hot meals twice daily in the synagogue on weekdays and a significant Shabbat meal as well.  Additionally, the synagogue sponsors various holiday celebrations and other social events for local seniors.  Youngsters from the Chabad schools also visit home-bound Jewish elderly in their apartments.


Chabad considers these programs essential and would be very reluctant to trim or eliminate them.  However, the loss of donors means that Chabad is three months behind in paying salaries to its employees and also is delinquent in paying bills for various services and supplies.  It is very unlikely that Chabad will be able to sponsor a residential summer camp this year, Mrs. Wolf stated.



15.  Leonid Kantor, a native of Vinnytsia, finished a polytechnical university in that city and had worked there for many years.  He became acquainted with Masorti/Conservative Judaism and completed a year of studies in Midreshet Yerushalayim, the Russian-language division of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, the central education institution of the Masorti/Conservative movement in Israel.  Upon returning to Vinnytsia, Mr. Kantor initiated a Masorti program in that city, focusing on informal Jewish education.



Leonid Kantor, a native of Vinnytsia, now lives in Odesa.



Photo: the writer.




After marrying an Odesa woman two years ago, Mr. Kantor moved to Odesa.  He has worked part-time in the Israel Culture Center (attached to the Israel Consulate)[32] and in Beit Grand.  Additionally, he receives a small stipend from Midreshet Yerushalayim to operate a modest informal Jewish education and culture program in Odesa.  However, Mr. Kantor stated, his operations under the auspices of the movement are severely constrained because Midreshet Yerushalayim lacks the resources to rent suitable premises.  Instead, he said, he rents a café in the center of the city for several hours two to three times each month for two programs. 


In the first program, continued Mr. Kantor, he uses intellectual games and other informal education methods to teach people about Jewish holidays.  Approximately 40 people attend these sessions.  The second program, which attracts about 20 people, focuses on Jewish history and bible stories; it also includes observance of Jewish and Israeli holidays.  Mr. Kantor believes that these programs could be expanded to include kabbalat Shabbat, but he has no funds for such program growth.



Odesa Jews learn about Purim in a Masorti-sponsored cafe session.



Photo:  Retrieved July 11, 2013.


[27] Mr. Kesselman averred that the average life expectancy of the current cohort of Ukrainian elderly is 63 years for women and 58 to 60 for men.  (The CIA statistics reported on page 2 of this report refer to Ukrainians born in 2013.)  Although precise numbers are unavailable, it has long been thought that Ukrainian Jews outlive their non-Jewish fellow Ukrainian citizens.  Hesed services may play an important role in the longer life expectancy of Jews, but other factors also are important; for example, most Jews live in large urban areas where health services are more accessible, and the educational level of Jews is believed to be substantially higher than that of non-Jews.

[28]  The bed linens were destined for hospitalized patients.  Ukrainian hospitals generally require patients to provide their own bed linens (as well as medications, surgical instruments, and food).

[29] See page 10.

[30] See page 10.

[31] See page 8.

[32]  See page 34 for more information about the Consulate of Israel in Odesa.

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